Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Wisdom Challenge for 2020

I decided to complete this challenge as we move into a brand new decade. Without thinking about it too hard, we must quickly brainstorm 20 personal ideas, or general pearls of wisdom. I wasn't sure I had many at all, let alone 20, but here's what I came up with. Once I started scribbling, I got on a roll. Would you like to read along and play along too? 

1) Life may not deliver our dreams, but it does deliver small, unexpected delights that catch us by surprise. Wendell Berry's main character Hannah Coulter was right when she put it this way. "I began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not do that, but to give unforeseen gifts and pleasures that I'd not thought to want." In retrospect, many of the specific outcomes I've prayed for over the years haven't happened. If I was to plot prayer results on a pie graph, I suspect the short term disappointment might appear to be way more than the 50% we'd expect from head/tail probability mathematics. That discouraged me for years, but now I think a better way to operate is to trust that when we don't get what we badly wanted, it probably wasn't right for us anyway. Aesop's fox decided those delicious grapes he couldn't reach must have been sour. He gets a bad profile, but I think his attitude might contain a bit of sense too. When I remember some things I've set my heart on in the past, I think it's probably lucky I didn't get them. (Review of Hannah Coulter coming soon.)

2) A life of curiosity is an interesting and varied one. Elizabeth Gilbert is right. In Big Magic, she says, "You may end only with the satisfaction of knowing you passed your existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. That should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life."

3) Many, if not most worries are just future projections fueled by fear without a grain of substance in them. It's best to live our lives in day tight compartments. The Israelites were instructed to collect enough manna for a single day, and those who decided to store up enough for two or three found it filled with worms and weevils. We're given enough grace to face the day we're in, and not grapple with those ahead. That's why worryworts have no rest. My imagination has gone sprinting ahead of me so often, I've lived many days under black clouds of fear, waiting for disaster to strike, when all along there was no need to. Dennis Merritt Jones' mother was right when advised him, 'Don't borrow trouble from tomorrow, son.'

4) We shouldn't get our habits mixed up with our essential nature. We can change the first, but not the second. I can stop eating dairy because I'm lactose intolerant, but I can't stop being a shy introvert because I want to be more social. After fifty years on this planet, the awkwardness, social fatigue and mind blanks are as strong a part of my psyche as ever. I've wasted a lot of time either in denial or trying to eradicate them. It doesn't work. Any time we declare personal war on intrinsic characteristics because we don't like them is wasted time! We're far better off polishing up our obvious strengths.

5) 21st century blessings like Paracetemol, Ibuprofen and sunscreen are miracles of our era, so we should use them gratefully as required. It's sometimes good to remember former generations who had to be more drastic, such as those who used laudanum for pain relief. In other words, we're happier when we don't take for granted lifestyles which would have been beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams.

6)There's no point in trying to second guess people. We are probably often wrong, and even if we're right about their nastiness, hostility or rudeness, it's better all round to give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's make up our minds that they meant nothing personal. Grudges and simmering resentment use a lot of energy that could be released elsewhere. The fellow who said, 'Keep your temper, nobody else wants it,' was right.

7) We should lower the bar for what qualifies as special. Captain Chris Hadfield was right. It's far better to enjoy hundreds of satisfying moments in our lives rather than dismiss everything except two or three awesome occasions spaced far apart. I was happy when I got married, had three babies, and won some literary awards, but when I know there's a good book for me waiting to be picked up from the library, the happiness is also present then. An expensive holiday is grand, but so is a stir-fry with a new sauce cooked by a spouse. Front row concert tickets are great, but so is listening to your favourite song on the radio as you drive to work. I'm sure you can get the picture and keep this rolling. Chris Hadfield said, "Life is a lot better when you feel you're having ten wins a day, rather than a win every ten years or so."

8) The ordinary should be embraced, including ourselves. People trying hard to be outstanding and special are pretty common. The evidence is all over social media. Fledgling businesses, new book reviews, and gorgeous, touched-up photographs greet us whenever we scroll down. Maybe Alice Average is paradoxically the really outstanding person, for accepting her humble station and just getting on with her day. The Ordinary Princess struck it lucky when a wise fairy gave her the gift of being nothing out of the box. Her parents were aghast, but she grew up with a level of contentment her ambitious, brilliant, highly admired sisters lacked. And that was probably worth more than gold.

9) Books are great. Socrates was right. Reading helps us take on board easily and thankfully a lesson some other person has learned through hard experience. Matt Haig was right too. When we're feeling depressed, let's turn to books, and replace our doleful mindsets with the words of someone in a more cheerful head space at the time of writing. It just might help us recover quicker.

10) Hearing somebody get highly praised isn't intended as a reproach of you. That's a hangover from my try-hard childhood and youth. We really have nothing to prove, and it's pointless trying to show or impress others anyway. Their minds tend to be set like cement and opinions hard to change.

11) There is more supernatural support under-girding our limited view of the world than we might ever think or believe possible. In recent years, I've felt increasingly that what is invisible to our natural five senses is surely even stronger than what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. I wrote a discussion paper for Uni earlier this year, and explained it like this. "The Bible informs us that God, from a spiritual plane invisible to our natural senses, formed our physical world with his spoken word. Those of us with a sound concept of Shalom or peace in our own lives may rest confident that the vast, unseen realm is more powerful than the everyday world we detect with our natural senses. It's easy to assume it's the other way around, since we rely on our natural senses to inform us what's 'real' and solid. Therefore, to really embrace the concept of Shalom, we may make a decision that once we've prayed to our loving God, we are safe to rely on the soundness of whatever plays out."

 I was delighted to read the words of Father Latour from Death Comes for the Archbishop. He explains to his best friend, Father Vaillant, why he doesn't bother to go chasing miracles. 'Where there is great love there is always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. The Miracle of the Church seems to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices of healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.'

12) Yet at the same time, all that we have for our five senses certainly isn't paltry. The character of Dad in The Solitaire Mystery is spot on. I'll quote him directly. "People would have gone absolutely wild if astronomers had discovered another living planet. They just don't let themselves be amazed by their own. All this bursts through each spring. Tomatoes and lemons, artichokes and walnuts, tons of greenery. How do you think this black earth pumps it all out? When people are interested in the supernatural, they suffer from a remarkable blindness. They don't see the most mysterious thing of all, that the world exists. Our lives are part of a unique adventure. Nevertheless, most of us think the world is 'normal' and are constantly hunting for something 'abnormal' like angels or martians. But this is because we don't realise the world is a mystery. I don't need to visit cold castles to go on a ghost hunt. I am a ghost myself." Bravo! Let's not be counted among those who are only impressed by angels, martians or ghosts.

13) It's fine to be open-minded but not double-minded. If we're always prepared to change our minds about the big, important things, we're never at rest. Statements such as, 'It's a purposeful universe,' or 'God cares for us,' should be unequivocal when we decide to believe them. In my wonky moments, I've felt the need for constant reassurance about the same old issues. I can understand why people get exasperated with me, since I do the same when people agree with my comforting thoughts one moment, then change their minds and race around panicking again the next. If a sound concept brings conviction and peace one day, don't drop it the next, out of fear it isn't true after all. James the Apostle was right. People like this are like tossing waves.

14) Hold lightly to both censure and praise. My first semester back at full time study was full of assignments ranging between 72% and 94%, yet I tried equally hard all round. I have to believe the differences may be a reflection of the marker as much as myself. The great philosophers who say it's wise to let it all go are right. Positive feedback feels really great though, so I suggest we enjoy the initial surge of elation, but then don't cling to it. In the same way, when something disappointing lets us down, we can recover quicker when we remember that it's temporary, and not the end of our story.

15) Time really does hurtle us through space at breakneck speed. It's an illusion whenever it feels sloth-like and meandering. If we realised how fast the years slip past on the abacus of our lives, we'd be breathless. So let's not waste them in depression but have our remedies in place to help us through through those undesirable moments. Mine are books, walks and pottering about. The Graveyard Poets were right when they said to accept our mortality and enjoy life while we can.

16) Perhaps your mind operates at a slower speed than others. Villette's Lucy Snowe was right when she decided she couldn't work on demand, because she freezes under the pressure of exams or any surveillance. When spontaneity really isn't your thing, you can't fabricate it. I rarely ask questions in class situations. It's partly because I'm shy, but also because my introvert, pondering mind doesn't process things on the spot as quickly as my classmates' do. I need to take time to review all the facts and notes in my own time later, before I have anything tangible to ask or offer. That's just me, and I have to accept it.

17) Don't rely on Angel Thoughts. This is an interesting concept I'm just beginning to put into practice now, with the help of an anxiety counselor who told me about the terminology. 'Angel thoughts' are those knee jerk reactions to the 'devil thoughts' which suddenly send our peace of mind flying! We scurry to piece together desperate evidence that our worst fears aren't true. This can involve seeking reassurance from friends or the internet. Sometimes angel thoughts take the form of affirmations we recite between clenched teeth. "I'm not sick at all. I'm the picture of health. I'm not a waste of space. I'm a perfect expression of love and creativity." The problem is, we can never pep talk ourselves out of severe depression or anxiety. Those reassuring angel thoughts never seem to loom as huge as the devil thoughts we're trying to shoot down.

Instead of relying on ineffective angel thoughts to shield me, which never works, I'm now simply waiting those devil thoughts out. Angel thoughts mean well, but they're really just compounding the problem. When we sit with devil thoughts for long enough, with a "Yeah, whatever," sort of attitude, they are more likely to subside of their own accord, until next time. And their severity lessens over time with longer periods between them. I'm already finding it seems to be a sound approach with those dreaded hang-ups which have seemed to hang on through the decades. 

18) Thinking about what we read is a real stand against the age of shallow skimming in which we find ourselves. So if you've borne with me thus far, congratulations. Reading anything from long articles to brick sized classics is a good, rebellious stand against all those modern voices that seem to clamour at us to hurry up. It helps us to deepen our focus, attention and the quality of our reflections. I'm sure it spills over to the physical aspects of our lives too, and steady our nerves and blood pressure.

19) It isn't our job to impress others. Really? I always thought it was, from the time I was a little kid. At home I was the baby sister, and at school I was the butt of mean bullies. I thought that meant I had to prove to all of them, and ultimately myself that I wasn't only worthy of taking up space, but also capable of some good, impressive input in the world. It was a waste of time, because each achievement turned out not be the end. I had to keep raising the bar higher, and keep a furtive eye on what my peers were doing. And do you know what? I was running myself ragged, and people don't really even pay much attention anyway. We need to chill out and live life out of enthusiasm for what we're doing. Not a relentless need for positive feedback before we can allow ourselves to relax. Plus, Sir Thomas Browne, one of the Graveyard Poets, wrote, "The duty of an honest Christian is to make an impression not in the record of man but rather in the register of God." To me, that's a tip to get my white-knuckled grip off imression management, social media stats and all those things which can tie us in knots.

20) Maybe John, Paul, George and Ringo were right. All we need is love. It's easy to take short pithy maxims as cheesy nonsense, and this lyric of the Beatles is no exception. But the most profound truths are often the very simplest to wrap our heads around. We're told that God is love, which makes sense since love sparks our impetus for the most meaningful relationships and activities in our lives. It's presence in whatever we do is possibly a sure sign that we're on the right track.

Whew, that was actually quite challenging and fun to do. Now I'd like to hear some of yours. If you'd like to commit to coming up with 20, please let me know. Even if only a couple spring to mind, please feel free to add them in the comments, and make them an extension of this list. I'd love to read them. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Christmas Highlights in Stories

Christmas is that time of year that brings everyone together. The idea of our divine God being willing to enclose himself in flesh and enter the world through birth, just like every other bub, is mind-blowing. His entry into our world also serves to shatter barriers of time and place for that one day of the year. It doesn't matter if we're in London or Brooklyn, or even Hogwarts or Narnia. Nor does it signify if we're living in 1800, 1930 or 2019. On December 25th, we are one and the same, observing the birth of our saviour wherever and whenever. I've done a brainstorm, and here are eight stand-out incidents from some of my favourite novels that unite real folk like us with some beloved fictional story characters. 

1) Fred and George unknowingly hit Voldemort in the kisser
During Christmas season at Hogwarts, the Weasley twins bewitch several snowballs to bounce off the back of Professor Quirrell's turban. Little do they know whose face they're pelting back there. Go Fred and George! Meanwhile, Harry receives a Weasley jumper knitted by kind-hearted Molly, and an anonymous invisibility cloak. (Here's more about Harry Potter)

2) Santa brings gifts to Narnia
The horrible freezing spell that the wicked queen holds over the land is finally weakening. There had been perpetual icy winter with no Christmas for several years, but now a sleigh pulled by reindeer heralds the arrival of Santa Claus bearing gifts. He has a shield and sword for Peter, a bow and arrow for Susan and a flask of healing cordial for Lucy. Nothing for Edmund, who's away from them at the moment, regretting his traitorous move.

3) Pip slides out of a sticky situation
Young Pip's stern sister has prepared a festive Christmas dinner for their guests, but he's robbed the pantry of a succulent pork pie, to feed a convict who threatened him out on the marsh. Pip is biting his nails and dreading her discovery of its absence every minute, but fate steps in to save his butt from a bad thrashing. (See my review of Great Expectations)

4) The March sisters decide to be generous
It's the lean Civil War era, and after grumbling because they're so poor, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy make a pact that they'll spend their bit of money on their mother, instead of buying treats for themselves. And then on Christmas Day, they impulsively decide to take their breakfast to treat a suffering family who live not far away. (See my review of Little Women)

5) Francie and Neeley catch a Christmas tree
The Nolan family are too poor to buy a spruce tree of their own. At midnight on Christmas Eve, unsold ones are tossed out into the crowd, along with the challenge that whoever is strong enough not to buckle beneath their weight can keep them. The tiny sibling duo are up for it. 'Me and my brother are not too little together,' says Francie. The tree cracks her head and scratches Neeley's face, but they have victory! Even undecorated, it's the best tree ever. (Here's my review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)

6) Matthew gives Anne puffed sleeves
Dear old Matthew Cuthbert has noticed that their girl Anne is more plainly dressed than her friends, thanks to Marilla's no-frills approach to her upbringing. He spends an embarrassing ten minutes in the store attempting to order one, before calling on Mrs Rachel Lynde to help sew up a treat. So Anne gets the 'perfectly exquisite' puffed sleeve dress of her dreams on Christmas Day. (Here's more about Anne of Green Gables)

7) Mr Edwards meets Santa Claus and saves Christmas for the Ingalls family
Ma and Pa Ingalls have told Mary and Laura there's no way Santa Claus can cross the wild, flowing river to bring them Christmas presents. But their kind friend Mr Edwards manages to swim across with tin cups, candy canes and shiny coins for the girls. And he tells them the wonderful tale of how he met Santa Claus back in town, who entrusted him with the job of delivery. 'He was too old and fat to make the attempt himself.' (See my review of Little House on the Prairie)

8) Scrooge learns his lesson
Charles Dickens was an expert Christmas yarn spinner, and his most famous of all is about the grouchy old miser who has three supernatural visitors whizzing him to different moments of his life. He comes to his senses in time to join his nephew and the Cratchit family for a wonderful Christmas dinner like only the Victorians could throw. (Here's my review of A Christmas Carol)

Those are mine, and together they make a lovely patchwork quilt of Christmassy moments. If you can think of any extras, I invite you to mention them in the comments. And I'll also add that while all this is going on between the pages of books, I'll be spending a hot Christmas hopefully wading at the beach at some stage of the day, in Adelaide, Australia. How about you?

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte

With her final novel, Villette, Charlotte BrontΓ« reached the height of her artistic power. First published in 1853, Villette is BrontΓ«'s most accomplished and deeply felt work, eclipsing even Jane Eyre in critical acclaim. Her narrator, the autobiographical Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a Belgian boarding school in the town of Villette. There she unexpectedly confronts her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Ginerva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. The first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life's journey - a journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman's consciousness in English literature.

This is a re-read for me. My first time through, as a Uni English student, was very sketchy in my mind. It's based on Charlotte Bronte's time as an English teacher at a girls' boarding school, or 'pensionnat' in Brussels, and her alter-ego is a serious and reflective young woman named Lucy Snowe, who falls for two men within the pages of the story. First is John Graham Bretton, a young doctor she knew when they were both in their teens, and second is Monsieur Paul Emanuel, the professor of literature at the school.

To use an exercise simile, this book is like a gym workout. It takes effort, but leaves us feeling fitter in our mind and spirit. We should keep away from Charlotte Bronte's books when all we want is a quick and leisurely read. This is no stroll in the park. Nor is it the sort of book we pick up to knock off a few chapters in our down time. I'm sure our benefit in reading it is in direct proportion to the amount of time we're prepared to pause and reflect on Lucy's word choices, and the apt imagery she draws from all sorts of places, including scripture and mythology. She invites us to consider how her frequent cultural and literary analogies apply to her life, and by extension, our own.

I'd go so far as to say that I wouldn't even take seriously the review of anyone who gallops through, because speed is evidently not the spirit in which Charlotte wrote it. You'd miss too much of what it's really all about. Yet that's exactly how I approached it as a teen at Uni, because we all just wanted to get abreast of our huge mountain of texts and churn out the essays required. This time around, I appreciated it one hundred percent more than I did the first time. 

Most fascinating to me is Lucy Snowe's character. She's so repressed and restrained, which makes her one of the best examples of lonely characters with rich inner lives I've come across. Lucy is great at slamming the door on any pleasure that tempts her, because her experience in life thus far has taught her that fun surely isn't for the likes of her, a solitary girl with no family who has to work hard to earn a living. She thinks it's so fleeting, letting down her guard would make her way too vulnerable to heartache and disappointment. Yet every so often, others are stunned by a glimpse of Lucy's true feelings before she crams the lid on them again.

Reading the book feels like being a recipient of huge trust, because we can't help but appreciate the tremendous sacrifice and effort it must take Lucy to bare all, as she's evidently doing. Reviewers who criticize her personality possibly don't realise that people similar to them are part of the reason why she finds it so hard to venture out of her shell in the first place. She might be super-reserved, but Lucy is definitely no coward. This girl can control a class of sassy teenage girls, and even attempts to touch a ghost.

Then there's the Monsieur Paul factor! Wow, to make me end up liking this guy shows Charlotte Bronte's skill with the pen. It takes just a moment to sum him up as a choleric, despotic little bossy pants, who is out of line a countless number of times. He calls Lucy brazen and bold when she's nothing of the sort, orders her to move away from a particular 'immodest' painting at the art gallery, and throws a tantrum when she doesn't offer him flowers on his special day along with everyone else. (That was actually sort of funny.)

 In the spirit of Lucy Snowe herself, reason would say he can go take a running jump. Yet this guy's earnestness and energy has a way of growing on us, and he delivers some great lines, such as, 'My establishment of servants number ten,' as he holds up his fingers. And of course, he's the one guy who sees through Lucy's facade to her real depth beneath. Monsieur Paul is a good example of how weaknesses and strengths may be one and the same, depending on how you look at them. By the end of the novel, I think overbearing and horrid  have morphed into straightforward and unpretentious to us as well as to Lucy. He's the sort of person who makes me think we should just put the best slant on someone's personality in the first place.

Here's a quick tip to get the most out of reading Villette. Make sure to get hold of a copy with a glossary or footnotes that translates all Paul's French dialogue to English, because Charlotte Bronte tends to have him rant in his native tongue when he's especially indignant or excited. My first edition didn't have it, and I was pretty sure his carrying on would be hilarious, if only I could understand it. Other characters, such as Ginevra and Madame Beck, tend to do the same. I've just splashed out on a copy that does have a glossary, but going through looking for them in retrospect isn't quite the same.

The supporting cast of characters make a great study too, starting off with the furtive Madame Beck, who keeps her staff under such sneaky surveillance. Then there's Graham, who is just a nice guy who treats everyone well, with no idea how hard poor girls like Lucy might fall for him. Yet he's the type to choose a girly girl, which is exactly what he does. His love interest Paulina is even described like a pretty little lapdog, and I did roll my eyes a bit at this pampered princess and her helicopter dad.

I liked the lightweight Ginevra Fanshawe, who is street smart and canny in her own fun loving way. Early on, she realises that trying to live up to Graham's lofty assumptions about her goodness would be too much for her. Good on you, Ginny! Best leave him for someone who's up to the task of wrapping her whole identity in his, which is just what happened. Although Ginevra and Lucy have different ideas about the ideal man, I can't help thinking Ginevra and her future hubby Alfred would probably be fun people to hang out with.

The ending open a whole can of worms for discussion, especially the final page, but since this review has grown long enough, I'll leave that one for another time. (Update: It is here.)

Overall, I adored this book! I can see why George Eliot and her husband, George Henry Lewes spoke so highly of it. At the outset I thought, 'It'll have to be pretty darn good to live up to yours, George,' and sure enough, the more I read, the more I found something very Middlemarchy about it, especially the depth to which it plumbs Lucy's character. Maybe it's even pushed Wuthering Heights off its pedastal as my favourite book from the Bronte sisters, and if someone like George Eliot agrees that it's even better than Jane Eyre, I won't be afraid to come right out and say it too.

This counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge as a selection set in Belgium (The city of Villette and the nation of Labassecour clearly stand for Brussels and Belgium)


Thursday, December 5, 2019

Iconic Moments in Stories

I can't help wondering if novels which are considered favourites by many readers have a simple, not so secret ingredient. I've read many books throughout the years, and although I have fairly good recall, some eventually get added to a general sort of story sludge in my mind. But the special ones keep bobbing to the surface because they have specific scenes that stick to the sides of my memory. It's a good sort of stickiness like toffee apples floating at the top of a tub. It stops them from sinking into that hazy, nether-world of books we've read but forgotten. When we remember one or two stand-out incidents, often with clear picture quality, it's far easier for the rest of the plot to slide back into our minds too, because that's how the memory works. So I'd encourage authors to make their books unforgettable by giving us sticky spots. As soon as readers can say, 'Oh yeah, that's the one where (fill in the blank),' that book has more of a chance of being widely recommended, well loved, and maybe even being a classic.

No way is this list exhaustive, but here are some of mine. Just for the fun of the proof, I'll see how many may be recognised without alluding to them directly. Most of them are books I've reviewed on this site. There are a couple of obscure ones for red herrings which you probably won't get.

Example 1
A small, freckled girl with long, red plaits sits eagerly waiting at a lonely train station, clutching the frayed handles of an old carpet bag. Way later in a fit of anger, that same girl smashes her school slate over the head of a brown-haired boy who calls her Carrots. The author of this book surely knew all about the power of sticky incidents, because I can think of many more too.

Example 2
A huge storm lashes a lighthouse with sea spray, and a huge half giant with a bushy brown beard introduces himself to a small bespectacled boy with a jagged scar on his forehead. The big man is the first person to drop the news, 'Don't you know yer a wizard?' This defining moment has become iconic for all of us Muggles who wish the same thing had happened to us.

Example 3
A ragged, exhausted young orphan approaches a stern elderly lady who's doing a bit of gardening. He shocks her almost speechless when he announces that he's the great-nephew she'd disowned at his birth, when he turned out to be a boy and not a girl. She even drops her pruning shears.

Example 4
A young landowner decides to help mow the grass on his vast property, just because he loves the challenge and the pure enjoyment. He doesn't really need to do it. In fact, he knows the peasants are laughing at his clumsy methods, and his fellow gentry think he's plain weird. But he's decided not to care what people think, as long as he's having fun and hurting nobody.

Example 5
A young girl and her tiny dog step out of their house, which has just landed after being caught up in a cyclone. To her horror, a knobbly pair of feet poke out from beneath the foundation. Her house has accidentally killed someone!

Example 6
The young hero has an unusual dad whose favourite hobby is collecting jokers from decks of cards. It appeals to him because they represent himself, and the way he perceives his role in the world.

Example 7
The fuming, jealous school teacher has been after the smug young lawyer for a long time, and at last he manages to catch him totally off-guard and thrash him within an inch of his life! Now the lowly heroine has the chance to step up and really show her true colours.

Example 8
The haughty young heroine is made to feel heartily ashamed of herself. The man she's always admired more than anybody else has called her up for giving a well-meaning old spinster a saucy put-down comment. 'That was very badly done,' he says. And she even sheds tears of shame.

Example 9
An elderly pastor is driving home along a windy road at night, when a shadowy, long-haired figure darts out in front of him. He slams on his brakes, but can't help colliding with the Gothic looking young man.

Example 10
A frazzled young mother, worn out from her cleaning job, doesn't hesitate when a paedophile is makes a lecherous move on her terrified young daughter. She grabs the family gun, takes aim at the creep's crown jewels, and has good reason to believe she strikes her mark. That one is a very shocking and sticky incident indeed. Later on, the same mother shocks her children in another way when she decides to send her son to school, denying her daughter the opportunity. They're both furious, because he hates studying and she dearly loves to learn.

The answers, in scrambled order.
Emma, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, Anne of Green Gables, The Solitaire Mystery, Our Mutual Friend. (For the tenth and final, I've slipped in one of my own because it's title is Best Forgotten, a name which ironically suits this challenge, because I hope the incident I chose is a sticky one which won't be forgotten.) See how you go matching them up. And if you feel like joining the fun, you might like to suggest a mystery iconic incident in the comments, and see if we can figure out where it comes from.  


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen's fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

This is my first re-read in years, and I don't think I ever appreciated the treasure this book is. It slips under the radar so often, I can't remember ever hearing anyone call it their favourite Austen, but I might have to change that.

On the surface, a basic plot outline could sound a bit boring. A gullible teenage bookworm visits Bath for the first time, then gets to stay with new friends at their home; a restored Medieval abbey. Her imagination runs wild, and she starts fancying she's really in a creepy Gothic thriller like the trashy novels she reads, which puts her in some awkward situations. This book is so much more than its summary though. It's a brilliant, finely-nuanced character study that held my attention every second.

Firstly, Catherine is a breath of fresh air. She never picks up on hints of what's really going on, but reads a lot into what isn't. She's a former tomboy who admires high achievers but never aspires to be anything special herself. A girl after my own heart. It makes her stand out among the crowds of novel heroines who were written to be 'novel' in the most extraordinary sense of the word. Many authors seem to share the implicit understanding that main characters must be important or unusual to deserve a following. To me, Catherine Morland is unique especially because of her ordinariness. In the world of literature, super-average is super-special.

She's fun because she's so limited in her way of thinking. Catherine has only ever been around kindly, straightforward country people, who have helped shape her own character. So she meets each new acquaintance in Bath assuming they'll be just the same. In other words, Catherine thinks everyone else is looking at the world through her own good-natured lens. The gold-diggers, self-seekers and fortune hunters who cross her path are able to fool her for a long time, because she's simply too sweet to recognise their true colours. And her first friends, sister and brother duo Isabella and John Thorpe are definitely not 'what you see is what you get' type of people.

Isabella is a pretentious social climber, and expert in the art of backhanded compliments. ('Miss Andrews is so beautiful, I can't think why the men don't like her.') She's always on the lookout for the next best friend or boyfriend to boost her own image, and will dispense with the last in a flash. But Catherine, being Catherine, accepts Isabella's statements on face value and believes what she says she means rather than what she does mean, which is often the complete opposite. It's easy to form pictures of Isabella as we read. I can imagine her sweeping along beside Catherine, peering around at the same time for anyone better to impress.

And John Thorpe is his sister's male counterpart, a show-off and wind-bag who's always contradicting himself depending on the image he wishes to convey in the moment. He's a crashing bore and the suitor from hell, yet for so long, Catherine doesn't even realise he has designs on her. (She gets off lighter than her brother James, who actually gets engaged to the two-faced Isabella. James has his own case of the Morland family naivety, and manages to dodge a bullet.)

A good Regency novel has to have a great hero, and smart-aleck Henry Tilney ticks my boxes. I can imagine he might seem too big a stirrer for some. He's the master of pay-outs, and the sort of guy to set eyes rolling. But I give Henry my thumbs up for recognising Catherine's good nature. He's a sound judge of character, even if she isn't. A huge part of his dawning fondness for her is because he appreciates the way she attributes the best and purest motives to others. In a world where so many guys pursue young girls because they're 'hot', kudos to Henry for being attracted to Catherine for a higher reason!

His father is a well-drawn character too, giving off all sorts of intimidating vibes. He's a bit like Andrei and Marya's formidable dad in War and Peace, and also has something in common with the Azkaban dementors of Harry Potter. A real fun-damper and soul-sucker is this guy. But he takes a shine to Catherine for a reason we discover as we read. He and she are total opposites in every way but one. They both assume everyone looks at the world from their point of view. General Tilney guesses everyone is mercenary to their core, with pound notes for eyeballs. I love it when he shows Catherine over his property assuming she's summing up the potential value, while all she's thinking about is spooky stories.

Getting back to her passion for reading, the bookish bits are fascinating to any reader. My house is full of Harry Potter fans, but for our counterparts of the early nineteenth century, it was all about creepy, formulaic Gothic novels like Anne Radcliffe's The Mystery of Udolpho. A fan is always a fan. So Catherine and Isabella's, 'Hurry up and read the next chapter of Udolpho,' translates to, 'Have you seen the latest episode of Riverdale yet?' What cool evidence that impressionable young fan girls never really change. And it's nice that Jane Austen was actually doing a pretty good P.R. job for Anne Radcliffe. I wonder what she'd think of our current fandoms. I know J.K. Rowling has called Austen one of her favourite authors, and I'm sure Jane would return the favour.

Anyway, I loved every minute, and I'll finish off with one of Catherine's unintentional witticisms. 'I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.' I'm with you on that one, Catherine, but although she'll never be an academic waffler, she's learned a lot about detecting ulterior motives by the end of the story. .


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre Dumas

This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining.

I don't think Alexandre Dumas cared one whit about literary excellence or anything like that. He just wanted to tell a good yarn, full of duels, waxed moustaches, and prickly, swashbuckling heroes. It took me a chapter or two to get used to the 'slay people as soon as you look at them' mindset, but then we were off. Seriously though, wasn't life-expectancy already short enough in the seventeenth century without cutting it even shorter?

The action takes place over about eighteen months, and never stops. Our boy d'Artagnan is an 18-year-old with a super-touchy, 'Do you want a piece of me?' attitude that gets him in loads of strife. Luckily for him, he has the skillful moves to wriggle out of it, sometimes by the skin of his teeth. He leaves his father's house with the intention of making his fortune, and has a letter of introduction to Monsieur de-Treville, in whose foyer he first meets the three buddies, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. D'Artagnan manages to accidentally offend each of them separately within the space of ten minutes, but after a few hiccups, the four of them become inseparable, getting embroiled in all sorts of delicate political and romantic jams.

One of their first quests is to recover a dozen diamond studs to save their queen's honour. She'd given them to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham, and now the jealous king is onto it.

Athos is the little gang's suave, enigmatic mentor, concealing his true identity and a troubled past which has sworn him off women. Porthos is the guy with self-esteem issues, coming off as a big, brash show-off. And Aramis is the modest chap who never boasts, but quietly aces everything he attempts. And he claims his real passion is the church. He's just filling in time musketeering until he's written his theology thesis.

The story was serialised in 1844, but set in 1625. Dumas took the liberty of crafting his adventure story around the true lives of people from history. An odd 220 years was still recent enough for readers to remember stories of Louis XIII, his lonely Austrian queen Anne, Cardinal Richelieu and the English Duke of Buckingham. Yet it was far enough in the past for him to stretch the truth to snapping point without getting in trouble. That's the feeling I get anyway. I doubt the real Cardinal was quite so crafty, or the Duke such a Playboy with nerve enough to seduce a foreign queen on her own turf. (For that matter, would Anne of Austria have really given her secret lover a string of diamond studs which was a birthday present from her husband? A tacky lack of judgement, for such an elegant lady.)

The biggest villain is a piece of work known as 'Milady', who's like a composite of Queen Jezebel, Bellatrix L'Estrange and Narnia's White Witch. Those who know her never, ever mess with her, but the naive, 20-year-old d'Artagnan does, putting him at the top of her hit list. This story suggests to me the habit of teenagers going off to seek their fortune is flawed, because they aren't wise enough! A guy who knows a certain woman is a monster, yet still jumps into bed with her, because he's too amorous to run away as fast as he can urgently needs his mother's input.

The dark humour is so black a shade at times, that we get invested in quests and relationships to be taken off guard. Towards the end I was blinking and mumbling, 'Whoa, that's a bit rough.'

Overall, I really wasn't a huge fan. Slapstick and tragedy aren't my favourite genres, and this yarn is like some strange hybrid that incorporates both. I doubt I'll ever read it again, but having said that, I found myself grinning a lot all the way through. I stumbled across C.S. Lewis' opinion in a book of essays, and he mentioned that The Three Musketeers holds no appeal for him because the pace gallops non-stop at the expense of atmosphere building. For example, when they cross the channel, there's no sense that London differs from Paris in any way. Most likely, d'Artagnan doesn't stop long enough to blink and take it in. Lewis says, 'There's no rest from the adventures. One's nose is kept ruthless in the grindstone.' I get where he's coming from.

Close to the very end, Athos give d'Artagnan a piece of elder brotherly advice that's intended to help him put things in perspective and move on. In general, it's a great sentiment that's transferable to the reader. He says, 'You are young, and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves to sweet remembrances.' It was such a wise thing for Athos to say, but in d'Artagnan's case, I don't really buy it. After all that went down, I'd suggest what the poor kid needs is hours of trauma counselling for a whopping case of PTSD. But maybe that's the difference between the twenty-first and seventeenth centuries.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Give Them Another Chance

Nobody wants to be that inflexible critic who makes a snap judgement and sticks to it, refusing to consider any further evidence. Yet as a reader, I've decided to beware of this tendency, because if there's one thing our pastime encourages it's this type of rigidity. Perhaps we read one book by a specific author, give it the thumbs down, then avoid their body of work from then on. For all we'll ever know, their other books might be fantastic. It seems generous to at least make allowances for talent development, or further improvement. I don't want my eyes to glaze over when I hear certain authors' names mentioned, so I've decided to push past a dozen one-book-verdicts, and give their authors at least a second chance.  

G.K. Chesterton
I thought The Napoleon of Notting Hill crossed a line into wacky and weird. It's so ludicrous that any John Doe can be crowned king in this version of Victorian London, let alone the uproar that followed. Chesterton stretched the concept of a sense of humour to snapping point. My verdict was 'too ridiculous for many stars but too thought provoking for few', and I didn't intend to read any more from him. But his reputation as a great mind and top theologian lingers on over a century after he wrote, so I've decided to try The Man who was Thursday.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde was a tad too predictable of course, which I admit isn't Stevenson's fault. He can't help it if everyone knows big spoilers for his story before we even turn a page. What he was responsible for though, is creating shallow characters we didn't spend long enough with to care for. For example, we only really got to know the eyepiece of the story, John Gabriel Utterson, in his lawyer capacity. And of course, Stevenson isn't an author who includes many females in his stories. Male-heavy stories are a bit... well, male-heavy. It was more than enough for me at the time, but I've decided it's too hasty to dismiss a great classic author on the basis of such a short story. So I'll try Kidnapped or Treasure Island.  

Truman Capote
The plot of Breakfast at Tiffany's didn't wow me. The whole story revolves around the charisma of Holly Golightly, but I found her to be a condescending pain in the neck. The up-in-the-air conclusion was presumably meant to intrigue readers, but I wasn't invested enough in this girl to be care what happened to her. It was disappointing after I'd built myself up to expect something enjoyable, but I've had In Cold Blood recommended to me as Capote's real masterpiece. So I'll give him another chance and add it to my reading list.

Frances Hodgson Burnett
I was so peeved by the moralistic tone and horrific subtext of The Secret Garden that the wholesome beauty, and healing nature of the garden wasn't enough to make up for it. The fact that a 10-year-old boy like Colin, with basically nothing wrong with him, could lie in bed all that time, coddled by resentful adults and thinking he's an invalid was appalling! All the author interjections about what unpleasant children Mary and Colin were rubbed me the wrong way too. Look what they'd been through! Mary was the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic! They had good reason not to be the sweet little kids everyone seemed to expect. So I finished the story feeling irritated instead of charmed, as we were meant to be. But perhaps I'll see what Burnett delivers in A Little Princess.

Alexandre Dumas
The Black Tulip was amusing and farcical, with an exaggerated cartoonish quality, but not necessarily a real page turner. I was prepared to just grin whenever I thought of Dumas in the future, and say no thanks to any more opportunities to read him. But perhaps it's unfair to judge a man on the basis of one of his less famous works, when he's written so many more big name titles. I'm going to try The Three Musketeers. 

John Steinbeck 
When I was in Year 12 at school, I had to read the tragic trio that was The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. The last one especially was too traumatic for my teenage heart, and upset me for ages. It was a tough year, and having to wade through Steinbeck didn't make it any easier. Writing essays about these books was a continual drain on my time and energy. It left me with a prejudice against him that's lasted for decades. But perhaps I should make allowances for the stress of the final year of school, and give him another try. I've been recommended to tackle The Grapes of Wrath again, but I might start with East of Eden.

Jules Verne
Phileas Fogg's attitude in Around the World in 80 Days simply annoyed me. He struck me as a demanding fop, plain and simple. Perhaps the fact that I'd love to travel around the world has something to do with it. Closing the train windows so he couldn't see any of the wonderful scenery that zipped past, because he was so intent on his wager, just capped it off for me. Come on man, if you get a chance to be a tourist, then see the sights! Or give the opportunity for extensive travel to someone who'll be at least interested enough to look! He was fortunate to have such a good-natured man servant as Passepartout. But I'll risk being annoyed by character quirks again and read Journey to the Centre of the Earth. 

Ernest Hemingway 
The Old Man & the Sea struck me a very easy win of a Pulitzer Prize, and Hemingway seemed very grouchy in his response to readers adulation. The book itself is short, anti-climactic, sort of uneventful, and plain depressing. But I've heard A Moveable Feast spoken highly of, so might read it.

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day was an okay read, but the reflective, melancholic, anti-climactic feel to the story didn't make me want to rush out and find his other works. It might be easy to never look for another one again, unless I remind myself to with a personal challenge like this. I think The Buried Giant and Nocturnes have had plenty of praise, so might choose one of them.

Chaim Potok
I simply didn't feel I was the target audience for My Name is Asher Lev. I'm not a Jew or an artist, so lots of the insight soared right over my head. When the thought of reading more of his books occurred to me, I thought, 'No, they're not for me,' literally. In other words, I meant it from Chaim Potok's point of view rather than mine. However, I can't deny there were some awesome moments in the story, and he's been spoken of so highly by many others who also aren't Jews or artists, I'll have another go. This time, I'll try The Chosen. 

Diane Setterfield
This is my bravest forage out into the field of second chances, because I really, really, many times really disliked her first book, The Thirteenth Tale. I found it melodramatic and tedious in the extreme, with an improbable and ludicrous twist readers could never foresee, stealing even the fun of guessing the mystery from us. She's one author I was prepared to never read again. But because I really want this challenge to stretch my risk factor, I'm going to read her more recent offering, Once Upon a River.    

This will be one of my personal challenges for the coming year, and I'll start already without setting a time limit. Here's some personal evidence that second chances sometimes do pay off. I found J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey rather strange, and felt like I was reading it in a smog of smoke. But I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye far more. And Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca fell flat for me, but Jamaica Inn was more to my liking. I hope you'll keep track of my personal progress, and if you dare to try the challenge yourself with books of your choice, please join in and let me know. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Fantastic Tom Swifty

I'm busy getting ready for my daughter's 21st this weekend, and also trying to finish the last two Uni assignments of the year, which are due next week. It'll great to have spare time again, which is my favourite state of being. To fill a space, I've dug deep into my archives, and had a laugh at this one all over again. 

Tom Swift was the hero of a series of dime novels published early in the twentieth century. He was a young scientist who had adventures with the technology he created. Ostensibly written by an author named Victor Appleton, they came from the E.L. Stratemeyer writing syndicate. Different authors, including Edward Stratemeyer himself, sat at their desks creating Tom Swift stories. Down the track, a variety of authors were employed to keep churning them out. They were better businessmen than authors, because the books were poked fun at by readers for the variety of speech tags they put in their hero's mouth. Tom Swift rarely just 'said' anything. He declared, stammered, barked, exclaimed, sobbed, ejaculated, grinned, mumbled and sang, just for a start.

No doubt the authors thought this assortment of words added colour to their stories. Even I remember my Primary School class being told by teachers to think of something more descriptive than 'said'. They never twigged what a neat little word 'said' is. It's not a sign of laziness and lack of creativity. It's a gem, which enables readers' attention to flow and not be jarred from the story with every line of dialogue. Nowadays, decent editors recommend that writers simply use 'said.' The fact that Tom Swift authors were teased about not doing so proves the point.
Tom Swift and His Giant Robot  (Tom Swift Jr, #4)

Anyway, the critics of Tom Swift started parodies of the way the characters spoke, turning sentences into double meaning puns.

'There are one hundred lollies in the jar,' Tom recounted.
'I've decided to come back to the group,' Tom rejoined.
'We've struck oil,' Tom gushed.

The art of the Tom Swifty came to include adverbs, which were also way over-used in the stories. Many editors now advise us to use them sparingly. They handicap a story to snail pace as our eyes skim over the page. We simply don't need to be spoon fed the way in which a character delivers dialogue. The mood should be evident from what was said, without having to tell us that it was spoken snidely, sincerely, tearfully, mournfully or any other way.

Tom Swifties are a great fun way of sharpening our wit, and perhaps if we come up with enough of them, it might help us to weed out our own speech tags and adverbs, seeing how silly they are when taken to the extreme. Some examples I've come across from others include the following.

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship  (Tom Swift Jr, #3)

'Will you lend me your pencil sharpener?' Tom asked bluntly.
'I'm no good at darts,' Tom said aimlessly.
'Lay your guns down,' Tom said disarmingly.
'Careful with the chainsaw,' Tom said offhandedly.
'I don't know what groceries to buy,' Tom said listlessly.

'Who turned out the lights?' Tom asked darkly.

I came up with some of my own.

'Pass me the sandpaper,' Tom said roughly.
'I want hot fudge on my sundae,' Tom said saucily.
'You don't have to dress up,' Tom said casually.
'I enjoy parachuting,' Tom said airily.
'You forgot to water my plants,' Tom said witheringly.
'I'd better get back to the shearing shed,' Tom said sheepishly.
'I'm always last to know,' Tom said belatedly.
'These suspenders will hold up your pants,' Tom said bracingly.
'There's a snowman in the garden,' Tom said frostily.
'I need a ruler to draw this graph,' Tom said rigidly.
'I want to pat that poodle,' Tom said doggedly.
'It's underwater,' Tom said sinkingly.
'There are bugs flying around everywhere,' Tom said waspishly.
'I'm the king,' Tom said majestically.
'Someone else has stripped all the apples from this tree,' Tom said fruitlessly.

And one for Harry Potter fans.

'I want to play Quidditch,' Tom said snitchily.

Now it's your turn, assuming I've convinced you that this is not a pointless activity ('I've lost the tip of my pen,' Tom said pointlessly). Are you game to see if you can add to my list?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 - Wrap Up

The Classics Challenge is done and dusted once again. I'm happy and quite surprised to have finished before the end of October, since it's been quite a busy year and some of these books are super long and challenging. As I've done in previous years, I'll give a quick wrap-up, and then award my personal bronze, silver and gold medals from the list. Thanks goes to Books and Chocolate for hosting the challenge. Here goes.   

A Nineteenth Century Classic - Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

A Twentieth Century Classic - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

A Classic by a Woman - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

A Classic in Translation - The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Classic Comedy - Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Classic Tragedy - Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Very Long Classic - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Classic Novella - Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson

Classic from the Americas (includes the Caribbean) - Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (includes Australia) - The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

Classic from a place you've lived - Sun on the Stubble by Colin Thiele

Classic Play - The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Now for the drum roll 

Bronze Medal - The Little Prince
I never expected to be choosing this honor for a quirky little fable, but Antoine de Saint-Exupery plays on our heartstrings with perfect notes. Through the modest personas of a gorgeous desert fox and a bemused, faired-haired alien boy, he cuts straight to the chase and suggests what's amiss with our world. The gentle attitude tweaks we're encouraged to take on board have brought me a lot of satisfaction. It's basically to value the people closest to us, but what a unique and imaginative way he has of getting it through to us. He deserves our thanks, if any author does.

Silver Medal - Mary Barton
Before it ever became a literary no-no, Elizabeth Gaskell brought a mish-mash of different genres into one story that must have made its original audience wonder what just hit them. There's social commentary, romance, adventure, mystery, high courtroom drama, and so many near miss moments, you can just about hear them whizzing past your head. I've got to give her credit because it was her debut novel, and she clearly already knew that a pen can be used a wake-up tool to great effect.

Gold Medal - Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens gets the top honor in this year's list because it was his last completed novel, he had all his best literary techniques going for him, and skillfully weaved the River Thames through the lives of such a varied social class. And in real life, he was a survivor during a scary and horrific train smash, but managed to sneak back on board to rescue the latest installment of 'Our Mutual Friend' he'd been working on. That's dedication for us.

I've participated in this challenge often enough to predict there'll always be a few new favourites on every list. This was no exception.    

Friday, October 18, 2019

'The Other Alcott' by Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

This is an excellent story based on the true life of Abigail May Alcott (May), the youngest sister of Louisa May Alcott. You might know her better as Amy March, the character she inspired. But the real May Alcott was a hard-working, talented artist with a fascinating life of her own, even though she's long been overshadowed by her more famous sister. I'm glad that Elise Hooper, who lives near their town of Concord and did heaps of research, has lifted the veil on May, as it deserves to be.

Related image
Okay, whenever I discuss Little Women with others, many friends brush Amy off as a spoiled, shallow, vain princess, and even claim to hate her. It makes me sad, because 'hate' is such a strong word, and there are far worse characters out there than Amy March, who actually makes several efforts to be a good person. Perhaps I relate to her as a fellow 'little sister' who understands the frustration of being left out of fun activities, and the humiliation of being teased for making faux pas, while trying to impress the older kids. I never burned my big sister's journal, but I can understand the sentiment behind it. And as for vanity, modern girls Amy's age are also trying to enhance their good looks. We don't have to search far for examples on social media. Come on girls, don't go for your facials, eyebrow sculpture or nail touch-ups, and then come home to criticise Amy for putting a peg on her nose.

I've often wondered whether Louisa May Alcott, the great Jo March herself, did her sister a rotten turn by depicting her in such a way that generations of readers would dislike her for decades, even centuries to come. In this novel, Louisa reasons that she was using Amy as a foil for Jo, and didn't think May would mind. Louisa comes across as a bit of a grouch, slightly resentful that she paid a high price for financial stability for her whole family. She never really wanted to write the moralistic, sentimental tales that took off so successfully, instead of the edgier crime thrillers she preferred. I'll always imagine Louisa the workaholic, gritting her teeth and writing to please others over herself. She was cynical and brusque, but I couldn't help liking her.

The two sisters had a loving relationship, but very strained at times. Louisa controlled the family purse strings, which was fair enough since she earned the money. So she financed some international painting tuition for May, but in return expected to call all the shots, such as deciding when May should drop everything and come home. She'd write, 'I've had my fill of looking after the old folk now, so I'm passing the baton on to you. Leave straight away.' When Louisa said 'Jump', May was forced to ask, 'How high?' It makes for some interesting Jo and Amy style home truths flying in letters across the ocean. ('You support me only so you may control me.') And we readers are detached enough to see both sides, and cheer when May does begin to earn her own money.

So now for May herself, the hero of the book. She's a fresh and delightful character full of enthusiasm to give her own passion a good shot. Several misgivings come to the surface of her mind, which she works through. She wonders if she really has enough of the family's obsessive streak to consider herself legitimate. (If you're a hardcore Alcott fan, you'll remember that their dad, Bronson, was intense and fanatical too. See my review of March.) Or whether she needs some sort of deep meaningful political cause to prop up her art, rather than letting her plain and simple love of beauty be the driving force. Listening to her dad, big sis and lots of other critical voices out there gave May a lofty standard and heavy burden she later wondered if she really needed to take on board.

But May befriends some notable people from history, such as Mary Cassatt, a disgruntled artist who took a huge risk by joining the Impressionists. Mary wanted the freedom to experiment with the new style she enjoyed, rather than adapting her work to suit the rigid rules of the establishment of the day. Her rebel outlook, so to speak, gives May a lot to think about.

Image result for may alcott artThe glimpse we get of May Alcott as a cougar is very cool. At the ripe old age of 38, she falls for Ernest Nieriker, a lad of 22, and they get married. Her sister Louisa suspects the young man's motives and writes, 'I must inform you the inevitable interruptions that beset the life of a wife interfere with her art.' But May goes for it anyway, in a very satisfying part of the story. Her most well-known painting, of the young girl with the orange head scarf and white dress, was painted around this time.

It's a haunting book that sticks in my mind, just for knowing the characters were real, and the end leaves us wondering about the nature of true success. The prickly Louisa was the focused story-machine we all remember, who brought us such beloved characters as Jo March. But I can't help feeling that May might have embodied more the idea of success I'm coming to appreciate the older I get. She hurt nobody, and made her gentle mark on the world in a way that satisfied her soul. She didn't live a long life, but gave it all the energy and enthusiasm she could muster, without focusing on her work at the expense of everything else that could make for a satisfying life. Right up until her untimely death, she was doing all the things she loved most. A real reminder for us to do the same.

You may like my reviews of Little Women and Good Wives I've also reviewed March by Geraldine Brooks, who anyone who may be interested in a fairly frank and brutal Civil War faction about the girls' father Mr March (or Bronson Alcott in actual fact). And I've tackled the question of falling for a best friend's little sister if you're interested in the Amy/Laurie romance plot of the series. I wasn't a big fan myself.


Monday, October 14, 2019

'The Prince and the Pauper' by Mark Twain

This treasured historical satire, played out in two very different socioeconomic worlds of 16th-century England, centers around the lives of two boys born in London on the same day: Edward, Prince of Wales and Tom Canty, a street beggar. During a chance encounter, the two realize they are identical and, as a lark, decide to exchange clothes and roles--a situation that briefly, but drastically, alters the lives of both youngsters. The Prince, dressed in rags, wanders about the city's boisterous neighborhoods among the lower classes and endures a series of hardships; meanwhile, poor Tom, now living with the royals, is constantly filled with the dread of being discovered for who and what he really is.

Two babies are born on the same day in Medieval London. One isn't wanted at all, since he's an extra mouth to feed. The other is longed for with bated breath by the whole country. The first is a little beggar named Tom Canty who lives in a slum on Offal Lane. The second is Edward Tudor, son of Henry VIII. And not only do the two boys share the same birthday, but grow up to be doppelgangers.

Mark Twain has written a cute regal fan fiction, in which two ten-year-olds meet unexpectedly and decide to switch places for a short time. They each want a quick taste of how the other side lives, since neither are happy with the restrictions they are forced to endure. So they swap clothes and go off on their merry ways, but the stunt backfires badly on both of them.

It comes as a total shock when they want to stop playing, but nobody will believe them and take them home. It reminds me of long ago days when I used to pretend to be somebody else, but my parents never bought it either. In the case of these boys, those closest to them assume they've gone bonkers, when they keep being so earnest. Sudden madness is a far-fetched affliction that doesn't happen often, right? But it turns out to be far more credible than a pact with a person at the other end of the social pecking order. So both boys seem to be stuck in a new lifestyle neither of them really want, and it looks like it's going to be permanent. Ooops!

Then King Henry dies, while the new little king is out copping abuse from the rough end of his kingdom, and still nobody twigs. All the while some little gutter snipe is getting prepared for his coronation.

The plot switches back and forth between them, focusing slightly more on Edward's adventures out in the great wide world, than Tom's experience in the Castle. Tom strikes me as the wiser of the pair. He figures out pretty quickly that he'd better learn to impersonate the prince if he wants an easy time. But Edward keeps getting clobbered because he won't stop insisting that he's the king of England, and expects to be treated accordingly by thugs, thieves and desperadoes. There's a very fine, almost transparent line, between bold honesty and a serious lack of judgement. Come on mate, it should be clear that nobody is going to buy the truth, so you'd better pretend to be Tom, at least for a time!

The guy I consider the hero of the whole tale is neither of the little whipper-snappers, but Miles Hendon, a down-on-his-luck young noble man who's been totally screwed over by his own family. He stumbles across young Edward, pities him and decides to become the poor little waif's self-appointed elder brother. It's the best thing that could happen, and saves Edward's life on several occasions. Miles is ultra-sympathetic, super-cheerful, patient and smart to boot. He's always saving the day, but sheepishly and comically enough not to come across as one of those Mr Perfects. (Which maybe does make him perfect.) Curiosity about how his personal predicament will work itself out saves the book from the straight predictability of the two boys. What a legend he is.

I like to read a few other reviews after forming the gist of mine. This little novel has loads of people complaining about the difficult dialogue, since Mark Twain wrote it to match the speech patterns of the time it was set. Nobody said this directly, but in effect, these reviewers are demanding, 'Please dumb it down for us.' Come on, fellow readers, let's man up! It's honestly not that hard. Twain hasn't used Tudor English to the letter, or it would be incomprehensible. Just enough to give his story a beautiful touch of authenticity. If we're willing to enter into the spirit of the Middle Ages, let's do it as wholeheartedly as they would, and stop demanding to be coddled with contemporary English. If we read it aloud with our kids, it's the perfect opportunity to show them that the English language is a rich, evolving entity, and not static and stale. For example, I wish 'mooncalf' was an insult that lasted the distance to the twenty-first century. It's such a descriptive word.

 So it's a simple story, but with a fairly provocative theme of how allegiance can be given based on a person's pedigree rather than his good character. Even though we live in more of a meritocracy now (which has its own problems) there's still plenty of name dropping and social climbing in our era. Word-of-mouth commendations based on who we know still give people extra boosts and lucky breaks that others inevitably miss. Yet after a few hiccups, Tom ended up pulling off Edward's role flawlessly enough to be widely believed. Maybe it's Twain's reminder that even nobodies may really step up if we're given the opportunity.

Even though I expected a little fairy-tale about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, there's a bit more to it, and it's quite a cool little read.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Famous Headless Characters

October is Halloween month, perfect for lists with a macabre twist. Headless characters fits the bill. For the sake of staying reasonably upbeat, I decided not to include historical figures, such as John the Baptist, Goliath and Anne Boleyn. I'm confining it to people whose headless state doesn't prevent them going about their normal business.

When I use the word 'headless' that also extends to 'bodyless' for there are two categories of people in this list. a) Walking torsos without their heads, and b) Dismembered heads without their torsos and limbs.

1) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
It's an American classic. The little town is said to be haunted by the ghost of a horseman whose head had been blown off by a cannon during the Revolutionary War. He kept hold of it though, to make a formidable weapon. One dark night, school master Ichabod Crane is returning home from a party, when he's confronted by the ghost, which removes its head from the saddle in front of him, and hurls it straight into Ichabod's face. Poor Ichabod is never seen again.

2) Nearly Headless Nick

Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is the good-natured Hogwarts ghost of Gryffindor House. His execution had been botched up, leaving his head still attached to his neck by a thin thread of sinew. This frustrates Nick no end when his application to join the Headless Hunt is denied by Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore, who will only accept contenders whose heads have been completely severed. Nicholas' 'death day' happens to be October 31st, and he invites Harry, Ron and Hermione to a sombre sort of party to celebrate it.

3) Harry Potter
There's another accidental incident, when Harry's supposedly floating head is spotted at Hogsmeade by Draco Malfoy. It gives Draco a tremendous scare, since he doesn't realise Harry is wearing his invisibility cloak. Harry's head just happens to poke out at one point during a tussle with him, Crabbe and Goyle. Harry gets in trouble with Professor Snape, but the chance to freak out Malfoy and his Slytherin cronies is almost worth it. (See here for more about these sworn enemies.)

4) Library of Souls
In this third volume of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, there's a row of severed heads on pikes guarding the bridge to the evil wights' headquarters. Although they appear very menacing and fierce, their limitations are clear when Jacob, Emma and Addison are brave enough to attempt to cross the bridge. The heads realise they're in no position to do anything but yell down empty threats. Nobody has ever put them to the test before. My review is here.

5) Engelbert
Talking about Ransom Riggs' quirky characters, this young man from Tales of the Peculiar has the ability to disattach his head from his neck and screw it on again whenever he pleases. He lived long ago in a band comprised of some of the very first Peculiars in history. Engelbert is so used to his special knack that he's pretty casual about it, and tends to forget that it frightens people. He has to do a lot of apologising. (See here for more about these quirky tales.)

6) The Cheshire Cat

He's a very cool character from Wonderland who can fade away gradually until only his head remains, and eventually nothing more than his cheesy grin. He's a puzzle to the aggressive Queen of Hearts, who orders heads to be chopped off whenever she loses her cool. The executioners try to reason that since they can't see the body the cat's head is attached to, her demand to chop it off will be hard to carry out. (See here for my review)

7) The Young Ones
Here's a blast from the past for eighties kids who used to watch this program. Remember when punky Vyvyan had his head knocked off from a train window? His body goes blindly lumbering out to search for it along the track, and when he finally stumbles across it, it berates him for taking his time. That was just the sort of crazy scenario you could expect from The Young Ones. And fans kept tuning in for more. (Also see Famous Stories with Trains and Railways.)

8) Futurama
Spare for a thought for the preserved heads of famous celebrities and US Presidents in jars which belong in the Head Museum. Philip J Fry feeds them as part of his night job. On one occasion, he and the gang become drunk and accidentally ingest the heads' pickling fluid, which sends them back to the time periods in which the heads belonged. (For more about the antics on Futurama, see here.)

9) The Wizard of Oz
He was doing it with smoke and mirrors, but one form the great ruler of the land of Oz liked to assume for direct interviews with Dorothy and her friends was a great head, just looming there in front of them. No doubt he thought it would make a huge impact. And he was surely correct. (See my review.)

10) The Enchanted Head
This one is the hero of an unusual romance found in Andrew Lang's Brown Fairy Book. A beautiful sultan's daughter falls in love with a head on a platter, but he's a very handsome head with all his wits about him, and he can jump, roll and dance like a pro. They are both very happy together, especially when he reveals to his bride that each night, he's allowed to get his body back. It's their special secret.

11) The Blemmyes
These tribal people kept popping up in legends over the centuries. They were (or are) a strange race of headless folk with eyes in their shoulders and mouths in their chest, also known as the Ewaipanoma. Some pretty illustrious people, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, were certain they existed, and a chieftain's son during the Elizabethan era claimed to have been captured by the Blemmyes and managed to escape. Apparently their lack of heads made no difference to their amazing skill with bows and clubs.

12) William Laud
He was a rather harsh Archbishop of Canterbury from the mid 1600s, who made dangerous enemies of prominent Puritans. Laud was eventually beheaded for treason, but is rumoured to haunt the library of St John's College at Oxford to this day. He supposedly appears with a candle in his hand, kicking his own head along the floor. If I happened to be a student and heard a bowling ball sound, I wouldn't hang around to investigate! In fact, I think I'd pack up my books long before dark.

Please let us know if you're fond of any of these headless folk, or their tales. And of course, tell us if there any others I've missed which might be added to the list.